Wake up the brains behind the power

27th May 2005 at 01:00
The theory is that by improving motor skills, you can enhance learning ability. Coaches who have tried simple stimulating exercises have been surprised by the results, writes Roddy Mackenzie

Glasgow Academy's physical education department have been working with the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology Scotland to investigate how sporting performance can be improved through stimulating the mind.

The results are now being evaluated but Stewart McAslan, the school's head of PE, is already convinced of the merits of putting primary and secondary pupils through a series of simple exercises at the start of classes.

"It's basically learning a sequence of movements," explains Mr McAslan, "but the sequence is quite challenging and the movements become more complex as the children become more skilled.

"One is basically a tapping exercise: touching your right ear with your left hand and then your left ear with your right hand.

"I've been gobsmacked by it. It only takes 60 seconds at the start of each lesson but there are signs of improvement across the board.

"We're all hooked and we're looking to take it forward. That will be our challenge for next year.

"I have no doubt this can be used to improve sporting performance at an elite level. We have a rugby and a hockey player who are playing at national level and it has undoubtedly played a part."

Mr McAslan's colleague Alan Campbell has done a comparative study on cross-lateral co-ordination between two P3 classes. His report is expected to show that pupils who did the exercises progressed more rapidly.

He has also filmed classes to look at how the exercises have helped to develop skills and technique. "Our rugby team works on foot placement in ladders and throwing the ball, and the exercises have helped co-ordination," says Mr McAslan.

It is a new approach for the school, but it is also a diversion for the INPP, a private company set up 30 years ago with a head office in Chester.

The company has an impressive track record in working with children with learning difficulties. In addition to helping those with dyslexia and dyspraxia, it has been successful in working on co-ordination problems, concentration and under-achievement.

The company believes that all learning is connected to control of movement and it has achieved some remarkable results from putting children through a range of simple exercises designed to improve co-ordination. It has evidence that by improving motor skills, learning skills can be improved in a child.

Andy Dalziell, a developmental practitioner with INPP Scotland, based in South Queensferry, has spent the past year working as a consultant to Scotland's national volleyball team and now the team coach, Thomas Dowens, is a convert to the stimulating exercises. Mr Dalziell acknowledges that some people progress more rapidly than others, but Mr Dowens is in no doubt that his team has improved as a result of the exercises devised with the INPP.

"The results for the team have been staggering," Mr Dowens says.

"Essentially, we have been dealing with getting the players to multi-task and working on changing rhythm and speed.

"This is the cutting-edge of brain science. Andy has designed an exercise programme for us which deals with cognitive and motor learning and how different sides of the brain take in information. He is working on what he calls bilateral integration, which involves the left and right sides of the brain inter-reacting. The players do repetitive exercises so that responses become natural to them in game situations, and they have responded to it."

"With the volleyball team, we were working specifically on the change of body state from calm to explosive," explains Mr Dalziell. "For example, it is getting a hitter to react from the moment the ball touches the setter's hands and place his foot on the floor to prepare for the hit. The hitter then goes from a calm state approaching the spike to rise up to the top of the net, where he snaps at the top into an explosive action."

Certainly, there is some evidence of an improvement in the psyche of the Scotland team. They beat Luxembourg in five sets in Glasgow last month, saving six match points in the process and winning the game on their first match point. How much of that was down to any new training methods and how much down to physical conditioning is debatable, but Mr Dowens argues that every element plays a part.

Mr Dalziell admits that the INPP has found some resistance to its methods from professional football teams, who, he says, may see it as "voodoo-ish" when they are accustomed to more traditional training methods. But he is convinced that the bilateral brain exercises are a growth area for sport at the elite level.

"My counterpart in Sweden worked closely with the high jumper Stefan Holm and he went on to win the Olympic Games last year," he points out. "Now, he is doing some work with his son, who is at under-16 level. He is also making a lot of progress.

"So, it can help at every level."

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